What the Digital Revolution Means for Advancement Services

Digital transformation. Feel the thrill of corporate buzzwords travel up your spine. Within higher education, this is a salient phrase. It describes changes driven by digital technology in society and organizations, and every director of advancement services I’ve met is grappling with it.

Let’s start with a delightful Forbes article by Jason Bloomberg based on the Altimeter Group’s 2014 State of Digital Transformation report. The crux of the piece is that, for many organizations, uncertainty reigns when it comes to digital transformation. The 2014 report defines it as:

“The realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touchpoint in the customer experience lifecycle.”

According to the report, 88% of organizations claim to be undergoing digital transformation of some sort, while only 25% have mapped out the process or documented a plan they can use to judge their progress.

Another 42% have “updated digital touchpoints with new social and mobile technologies and investments,” and 12% are researching customer behavior before they commit to a plan. A 2011 report from MIT Sloan reaches similar conclusions and provides a number of tactical approaches and case studies.

Sound familiar? What does this mean for higher education? How does digital transformation affect prospect identification and donor management?

How does change happen?


I enjoyed Mr. Bloomberg’s metaphorical image of a digital butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Imagine the similar metamorphosis of your digital steering committee: from a larval grub squabbling about conflicting departmental approaches to an elegant, fluttering beacon of institutional leadership and vision.

On the other hand, having recently cleaned out a garage, I was reminded that cockroaches can do the same thing, but the new shell hardens in the same shape, yielding… just a larger cockroach. Feel free to select the metaphor matching your own organization’s experience.

Nobody believes change is easy if they work in a large organization. I’m also reminded of the story of Westmont College, where change was driven not so much by an elaborate planning process, but by a wildfire that reduced half of campus to ash during 2008’s economic crash. Westmont used the shock to change their practices, rewrite the playbook, and grow.

Copy and Steal Everything

The first step is tough when your feet are encased in concrete. How can you overcome inertia in a fairly conservative institution? For one, the C.A.S.E. acronym has several definitions, including “Copy and Steal Everything.”

Robert Weiner, a wise fundraising technology consultant, sent along a cartoon that speaks to the fear of taking risks at large organizations (until a rival in the US News rankings does it first, and then it’s time to play catch-up).

Kathy Lueckeman, former senior director of CRM at Wayne State University and current Higher Education braintrust at the Salesforce Foundation, suggested using tools and patterns that are “well-charted territory by industry generally, but uncharted in the nonprofit industry.”

I think that’s great advice. Rather than wait for one of your peer institutions to catch on fire and burn down (thereby creating fertile conditions for change), encourage your leadership to be jealous of other industries in which change is underway.

Your vendors are doing the same thing. Blackbaud’s NXT uses the proven API model, and Ellucian chose Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM platform rather than rebuilding their own. The Salesforce Foundation also gets to cherry pick new features and apps developed for Salesforce.com’s 200,000 for-profit customers.

Larger institutions sometimes need to be all things to all people. Balancing the needs of faculty, admissions, advancement, facilities, and even endowment management and athletics makes it much harder to pick a particular “customer” story to build your digital plan around. Large companies studied in the Altimeter Group report have the same dynamics—they’re torn between the desire for consistency and scale and the need to provide digital experiences that aren’t bland or tone deaf.  If you work in or with a large organization, you already know this.

Should you merge communications and advancement? Should you rebuild your enrollment and student information systems to provide future donor stewardship? Should you focus more effort on building and measuring channels and funnels for non-traditional students?

I don’t have those answers. I will, however, share one idea I’ve embraced from working with and watching EverTrue customers fight their own digital transformation battles.

Build an Engine to Collect and Maintain Contact Information

You must be able to contact someone in order to show them great new things at your institution, or to steward them and ask them to donate.

Every channel has a piece of crucial contact information. Direct mail and email have addresses, phones have numbers, and LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter have unique identifiers for their users. Again, you can follow other industries into the breach.

It’s not just for mass marketing purposes and your alumni newsletter. Even as the large public social networks continue to erode walled garden alumni networks, savvy advancement professionals steward their donors through Facebook posts, emails, phone calls, and finally, in-person meetings. $1M gifts are made online (wow!) but not without personal communication.

When constituents sign in to your website, register for events, or join your Facebook page or LinkedIn group, your technology should passively gather emails, addresses, and phone numbers along with information from third-party social networks.

Thankfully, communication channels shift slowly as constituents age. You have time to study, measure, and operationalize the Facebooks of 2010, the Snapchats and Kik apps of 2015, and the cyberpunk cranial jacks of 2025.

Your challenge: How can every department and database be configured to find, capture, share, and use these critical unique identifiers and contacts? How can the whole institution understand the importance of this data?

Copy and Paste Everything?

Maintaining contact information ties your relationships and communication channels together. I urge you not to follow a very natural impulse to hoard or “append” social data into your institutional database. Unlike emails and phone numbers, a fresh copy of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter info is available somewhere else: on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. This kind of data, best viewed real-time, will be out of date as soon as you press Control-V.

You’re right to be skeptical: There is a gap between the availability and accessibility of this data, and your needs to study it, to segment and sift. I still believe you are much better served by collecting the profile URL or unique ID for these social networks, rather than attaching Facebook comments to a donor profile with a Microsoft Word document.

We Salute You!

I’ve talked with several institutions who are in the middle of a CRM migration, and many others in which communications and advancement staff are working together towards a true digital transformation.

At 50+ worker bees, EverTrue has hit the point where we can’t know what everyone is thinking or doing all the time, even with Slack. Managing change at our size feels challenging, but it’s nothing compared to steering your ship with hundreds of employees and tens of thousands of constituents. I hope some of you will leave your horror stories or happy endings in the comments.

Watch EverTrue TV Ep 1: Social Donor Management Overview for an introduction to leveraging social data for prospect research and fundraising!

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